Jonathan Hourigan

Introduction to L'Argent

On Monday 15th October, 2007, as part of the BFI Bresson retrospective, Robert Bresson, Probably, at BFI Southbank in London, Jonathan Hourigan introduced L'Argent.

Hourigan, a filmmaker, script consultant and teacher, had worked on the film and outlined the problems that faced the production as well as the controversy that followed before L'Argent was recognised as Bresson's late great masterpiece.

The following introduction is published with the kind permission of the BFI.

[ Some additional notes on Bresson by Jonathan Hourigan (notes which ended up not being used during this event) may be found here ]


JH introduced by Alison Zemell of BFI Education Department.
Thank you Alison. And good evening.
First, I’d like to thank the BFI for mounting this retrospective. And perhaps I could just express the hope that the rights issues that have excluded Une Femme Douce, a film about which I am passionate and also Quatre Nuits d’un Reveur from this retrospective, will soon be resolved so that we are able to see those films once more on the big screen, as intended, in due course.
I’d also like to thank the BFI for inviting me to introduce this film. My role on L’Argent was very small but it’s a role of which I’m very proud. And when I looked in my production diary I note that 25 years ago today we were shooting in the Lycee Charlemagne, where the two young bourgeois boys go to school. So it’s something of an anniversary, although rather a shocking one I suppose, a quarter of a century on.
I’d like to start off by telling you that L’Argent was a very difficult film to make.
At the time I had nothing to compare it with but Mylene Bresson has explained to me subsequently that, whilst Lancelot may have been the most difficult of the films in terms of logistics, in many other ways L’Argent was the hardest of the films that she made with her husband as his assistant.
First, the summer of 1982, certainly in Paris, was very, very hot. And the early weeks and months, often shooting in quite cramped interiors with lots of lights, were exhausting for everyone.
Indeed, arguably the only thing worse than that was completing principal photography in the late November, trying to pretend that it was still a hot summer.
In addition to which, at the time, Bresson was already in his early 80’s. And whilst he was a vigorous man, both physically and intellectually, the shoot was difficult. It’s a film with a huge number of locations and because of the problems we confronted I certainly saw him tired and frustrated and on more than one occasion during this period he said of the film, Il est mauvais.
Another problem on this production and for those of you who were here on Saturday when Mylene introduced Lancelot du Lac, you will recall her talking about Bresson’s sometime stormy relationship with Pasqualino de Santis, his Director of Photography.
Lancelot was their first film together and L’Argent their third but the relationship had, I suspect, become no easier. As on Lancelot, de Santis packed his bags several times to head back to Rome, only to return. He did see out his contract although that still meant that he left before the end of principal photography. And he was replaced by Emmanuel Machuel, who filmed mostly interior scenes and especially on the set constructed for interior prison scenes, following de Santis’s lighting schemes. But nevertheless, this presented quite a considerable problem for the production.
And on top of that, whilst thinking about the camera crew, I recall that in one particular week we managed to get through three camera operators. Firstly, Mario Cimini, de Santis’s regular camera operator, a man of great technical skill and charm and who was often an emollient presence between Bresson and de Santis, returned to Rome with an eye infection. Then Michel Ambramowicz broke his arm and was replaced by a third operator.
I think, actually, that some of the moments of greatest joy on the shoot, certainly during those early, difficult summer days, arose from Italy’s progress through the football world cup finals. I think they eventually beat West Germany 3-1 in the final, much to the delight of de Santis and his camera and electrical crews.
On top of that, as I’ve said and in ways that I didn’t understand at the time, Mylene has noted that this was a very difficult production for Bresson and for her. I think it’s fair to say that, behind the scenes, at times, the production did not run quite as smoothly as it might have done.
And all of that, of course, was in addition to the usual challenges of working on a Bresson film. The kinds of frustrations that he, his models and his crew might face, largely to do with the unique way he worked with his actors, or models as he would call them.
As you know, he drilled his models rigorously, intending to impose upon them a kind of automatism that he felt would ensure that they would be capable only of expressing their most inner motivations. So, not only did that process of imposing automatism upon them require a lot of work and a lot of takes but also, his uncertainty as to what they might be revealing at any one moment ensured that he needed a lot of takes so that he could choose between various possibilities once he started to edit his films. And that’s because I think his notion of the substance of his films, the real stuff of the films, was the interior lives of his models, captured by these passive, mechanical instruments, the camera and tape recorder.
So he had, I think, a modernist faith, it seems to me, in the mechanisms of filmmaking that he believed could penetrate the exterior. And indeed, if you look in the Notes on Cinematography, his very interesting book of aphorisms around the practice of making films, he talks about the camera and tape recorder being able to penetrate the exterior and apprehend states of soul. So there’s an interesting Catholic inflection of modernism there.
The fact that, for Bresson, the substance of his films was the interior lives of his models, also indicates why this most independent and auteurist of directors was so often drawn to existing sources for his narratives because for him, the story itself was not the stuff of the film. And for someone who, I think, didn’t particularly like writing, it was more congenial for him to find external sources and to form them to his own needs. Narrative in the conventional sense provided a context or provocation for his exploration of the real substance of his films. His originality lay, then, in his particular way of making films and in seeking to explore the deepest inner lives of his characters.
Bresson was tired and frustrated during the shoot. We finished shooting on 22nd November and I rang him a day or two after that and asked if I could come and see the first cut of the film.
We were obviously screening rushes most evenings and also looking at cut sequences as we went along and hoped to have a first cut of the film very soon afterwards. And he quizzed me; “Why do you want to come and see it? It’s going to be poor.”  Eventually I persuaded him and on the 26th November, we screened the film in its entirety for the first time and it ran, I think, 99 minutes. Whilst there was none of Bresson’s famous post-production sound on the film at that time, even then I wrote in my diary "Beauty and ease and overwhelming spirituality, especially towards the end."
Of course, Jean-Francois Naudon, his young editor, went on to cut another fifteen minutes out of the film. I think it now runs 84 minutes and I challenge any other filmmaker in the world to cover all of that territory in just 84 minutes. The film evolved further with the removal of that quarter of an hour and with the addition of post-production sound but as you’ll know, the film was still boo-ed at Cannes the following May.
And so I’m interested to think about where does this film stand now?
And I hope that, without spoiling the film by telling you the end, I want to think about the end, really in two ways.
Firstly, the final shot of L’Argent seems to me to be almost identical to the final shot of Les Anges du Peche, made 40 years prior to L’Argent.
Of course, I accept that Bresson developed during that period. His work clearly became more and more austere but essentially I think that there’s a powerful correspondence between those two final shots.
And yet, if you go back just another few years, to the mid-30’s when Bresson, already in his mid-30’s, made Affaires Publiques, his surrealist, burlesque comedy, it’s a very different sort of movie. And I would contend that the experience of being a prisoner of war at the hands of the Germans at the beginning of World War Two was crucial for Bresson and somehow unlocked, or gave clarification to, his creative voice. And that that voice then persisted, with greater and greater clarity, for the next 40 years.
Secondly, the other great debate around Bresson concerns whether his films became increasingly pessimistic over the years. I suppose that most commentators place the fulcrum, if you will, between transcendence and pessimism, around Mouchette or Balthazar.
Bresson would argue that his films simply became more “lucid”, leaving aside the notion of their being more or less pessimistic. I’d just like to add that, on Saturday, introducing Lancelot, Mylene argued that Lancelot is Bresson’s most enigmatic character and I think I’d like to argue that L’Argent is perhaps his most enigmatic film. Or certainly that the final shot of L’Argent is powerfully enigmatic and open-ended in both narrative and moral senses.
In conclusion, I’d like to say of Bresson that he was born Catholic, was educated in the classical French tradition, was influenced by the Modernism of inter-war Paris and decisively found his creative voice through the experience of being a prisoner of war during World War Two.
And I believe that L’Argent is his late, great masterpiece, made during just the first century of this medium that we all love and my expectation is that this is a film that will be seen for as long as there are things that we might recognise as films. It will become viewed in the same way that we today view the inspiring and visionary paintings of the great Renaissance masters.
I hope you enjoy the film. Thank you. end block

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